For any book lover within striking distance the venerable Hardayal Library in Old Delhi is a fascinating reliquary worthy of pilgrimage. It houses one of the country’s finest collections of antiquarian books including gold illuminated translations of Hindu and Muslim religious works as well as a 1677 edition of Sir Walter Raleigh’s History of the World. In all there are over 8,000 rare books – potentially worth millions – from a stock of 170,000. The library began in 1862 as a book club for British officials who donated volumes they’d brought and read on the long sea voyages from home. The collection was initially kept in the Lawrence Institute in Old Delhi’s town hall, then in 1916 it relocated to the current building off Chandni Chowk and was renamed the Hardinge Municipal Public Library. It was only some time after independence that the “Hardinge” was replaced with “Hardayal” in 1970 – after freedom fighter Lala Hardayal, who had flung a bomb at Lord Hardinge’s elephant procession in December 1912. Ironically, the present building was built after the failed attack with contributions from Indian royals and institutions of the time to commemorate Lord Hardinge’s escape.
The nearly century-old building is full of character preserving the tall arches, wooden spiral staircases and tall doors. A precarious, narrow iron staircase leads to the first floor that houses books in Hindi and English. Flooded with natural light during the day, you need to watch your step walking on the frail, creaky, plywood floor. Students throng the air-conditioned reading rooms to study or take a break from the hurly-burly of Old Delhi but despite the value of the library’s collection there’s no controlled environment for the books which are gradually succumbing to damp and coated with dust. Modernisation would be a priority you’d think and yet the current prospects for the library continuing to exist at all are bleak. Funding has been frozen and the staff who loyally continue to turn up have not received their wages in 7 months. The reason? It seems with the trifurcation of the MCD (Municipal Corporation of Delhi) early in 2012 the library has fallen victim to an inverse turf-war. Each MCD office seems to be vying with the others to distance itself from any liability to support either the head office in Old Delhi or any of the other 31 branches spread across the capital. I hope they soon come to their senses it’d be a scandal if this valuable public resource and national treasure were allowed to simply fade away. A selection of my photographs have been published to accompany Dean Nelson‘s Daily Telegraph story here and on The National’s photography blog, here.